The French people were just so delirious with joy, because in the Americans they saw hope for the future, that we might, you know, end the war quicker with the Americans coming there…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States of America adopted a policy of strict neutrality. There was little support amongst the American population for entering the war, despite early reports of German atrocities. Benjamin Muse was living in America in 1914.

There was a lot of propaganda and that was disturbing, exaggerated propaganda over that period, which was really outrageous when you look back on it. One got the impression from reading the papers and hearing the talk that the Germans, or the Huns as we called them then, were a hoard of barbarians who were descending on Europe, about to plunge Europe into another Dark Ages. We read about how they slaughtered women and children, threw babies up into the air and caught them on their bayonets, tortured prisoners of war and all that. I didn’t believe all that, in fact I wondered if the Germans were barbarians of that type. And, if they were, why we hadn’t heard more about it before this war started.

The US wanted to stay completely out of the conflict, but found this increasingly difficult due to Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. In May 1915, when a German U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania, 128 US citizens lost their lives. This was a key turning point in America’s attitude to the war. Walter Greenwood, a schoolboy in Britain at the time, remembered the anger felt towards Germany after the attack.

Well the news suddenly went round that the Lusitania had been sunk and all the women turned out, furious, cursing the Germans. And suddenly they began to talk about the people running shops who had got German-sounding names. Groups began to form and somebody rushed round and said Keppel’s, pork butcher’s shop had been broken into by a crowd of women and all the eatables stolen.

In response to American outrage, Germany abandoned unrestricted U-boat attacks – but resumed them again early in 1917. This, coupled with the news that Germany had proposed an alliance with Mexico to threaten American interests, finally brought America into the war in April 1917. US Army veteran Harvey Maness remembered the American president, Woodrow Wilson’s, reluctance to enter the war.

Well that was the grand climax. You know, they had the U-boats and that was their secret weapon and they came darn near winning. But that really broke the backbone of American sentiment; on April 6th 1917 President Wilson declared war. We stayed out as long as we could, you know he went in; Wilson went in the second term with the theory he was going to keep us out of war – well, three months later we were in war. But he didn’t declare it; it was forced on us: we had to go, to defend our rights. So, see those U-boats were going to put us out of business; keep America getting in the war. And if we hadn’t gotten in at the last minute, Germany would’ve won that war.

America was not ready for war. The country had to mobilize, and prepare its armed forces for battle. The US Army was small in size, but conscription was soon introduced to expand it. The first US troops arrived in France in June 1917. John Figarovsky, of the 1st Infantry Division, was amongst them.

When we landed one of the first things we did is to parade through the town. We paraded through St. Nazaire and the French people were just so delirious with joy, because in the Americans they saw hope for the future, that we might, you know, end the war quicker with the Americans coming there. As we marched through town, the sidewalks and even the gutters on both sides were full of people, and we felt so proud and important that such a fuss was being made over us. We were most of us young, and looking forward to the fight, and we didn’t know how serious war is because we had never been in war before. To us it was just one big adventure ahead of us.

150 000 men passing the New York Public Library, watched by large crowds, during the Preparedness Parade in New York, 13 May 1916.
Preparedness parade in New York City passing New York Public Library, watched by large crowds, 1916. © IWM (Q 110335)

British officer Richard Tobin remembered his reaction as the new US troops arrived at the front.

When we were out of the line we used to stand by the road and watch the fresh, strong, plump and new American battalions swing by. They waved and laughed and shouted. Our boys stood by the side of the road and grinned back. But we wondered: did they know? Could they do it? Would they do it? But we were pleased to see them.

The United States Navy was also mobilised. US warships joined with the British Grand Fleet to help guard convoys. In November 1917, a battleship division sailed to Scapa Flow. British officer Lennox Boswell recalled the positive relationship between American and British naval personnel during the year they worked together.

The American squadron sailed for home on the first of December: just under a year from their arrival at Scapa. The squadron, on arrival, consisted of the New YorkTexas;WyomingFlorida and Delaware. During the year they were with us, the squadron was completely integrated into the Grand Fleet in every way. For instance, American officers were piped over the side just like our own officers, and not in accordance with the customary courtesies for foreign officers. Some very nice signals were made when the Americans went – on both sides – and everybody obviously hoped that it would be repeated some time.

The arrival of the American troops acted as a much-needed morale boost for the war-weary Allied soldiers. By the spring of 1918, they were arriving on the Western Front in large numbers. Clifford Lane of the Hertfordshire Regiment explained the importance of this, given the depleted state of British forces at that time.

Well, we knew that they were coming. I think it must’ve helped quite a bit really because there’s no doubt that we were getting at the end of our tether, you know. There’s no doubt about that. I mean all the people who’d got the experience were getting tired and nerve-racked and that sort of thing. And the youngsters really didn’t know what it was all about, you know the younger people. And we were running out of troops; they were using boys of 18 and a half, you see, or just over that. I think, myself, it’s only an opinion, that if the Americans hadn’t come in, it would either have been stalemate – because the Germans had had enough too – and there would have had to have been a negotiated peace. That’s what I think. But the fact that these Americans – thousands, hundreds of thousands of them – strong, healthy lads, well-equipped, their strength hadn’t been impaired in any way, they were ready to go just as we were in 1914. You can just imagine what the Germans thought of it, anyway. They must’ve known – they knew what was going to happen, you see.

Once at the front, the American troops began to get ready for combat. US Marine Melvin Krulewitch described the physical training he underwent.

All of us went through the tough Marine Corps Training. Which comprised not only the training as Marines, the technical military training, but physical training. When we were in camp we were required to serve one day of training and one day of the hardest physical labour that you can imagine. We handled five-tonne iron and steel beams by hand; we unloaded brick barges by hand; we made the oyster-shell roads by hand. We went on our hikes into the manoeuvre grounds carrying 95 pounds on our back. We got used to that: it was a great pleasure to go back to training after the day of hard work. And, every morning at 4.45, at reveille, we would have 15 minutes of hard physical exercise with the rifle itself – using it as a wand: a nine and a half pound gun.

The newly-arrived American soldiers also received basic weapons training. American machine gunner Leon Diament described the equipment that he trained with.

When we arrived in France we had no machine guns. We went in training the best way we could with our small arms, waiting for our machine guns to arrive. Well, they didn’t arrive for about a week, or maybe even a little longer. If I remember, it was about eight or nine days. A shipment of machine-guns finally arrived, and when we opened them, we almost had a revolution. We found we’d received Hotchkiss guns – Hotchkiss machine guns – that was the guns the French Army used. Well, there was a big commotion. The officers got in touch with headquarters and headquarters with supreme headquarters, and back and forth, back and forth, but nothing happened. Next morning the officer came in and said, ‘Men, I’m sorry, that’s it. Those are your weapons, and that’s what you have to use up front. You’d better learn how to operate them. Tout de suite!’ There was a commotion, there was a little resentment but we were good soldiers; we had to take it.

British officer Bill Haine was part of a demonstration platoon that delivered combat training to American troops in 1918.

When we were dragged out of the line to form GHQ troops we still went on training and one of the things which happened was that they formed a number of demonstration platoons. All these people had been a lot of actual warfare and all our fellows had seen a lot of actual warfare and they formed these demonstration platoons to try and instruct other people how to carry on. Well, it was a highly trained platoon and it was there to demonstrate to troops who had not had the experience of war. The discipline was a great thing; I mean we trained like guardsmen as far as the drill was concerned. But then on the battle side, you showed them how you should do things and how you should use your weapons.

Charles Templar of the Gloucestershire Regiment was a signals instructor to the New York Division in 1918.

When I got back to the battalion and was greeted as I was. I was obviously being kept back because I was sent on a separate duty to join the New York Division – the American New York Division – which had just landed in France, only just landed. And they sent me because they wanted me to give instruction and information to the American signallers of the division concerning the sort of work they’d have to do in the front line and the areas around the front line. So I had the signallers in a group and I didn’t try to teach them anything I might talk to them about the sort of things that they could expect.

After this training, behind the lines, US troops joined French and British units in relatively quiet sectors to gain front-line experience. British private Fred Lewis recalled the American soldiers that he served with.

When the Americans came, when they came out, there was about eight and they come to our lot. And the sergeant there, the first words he said when he was in our trenches were, ‘Where are the goddam Germans?’ Someone told him, ‘Just over there.’ I says, ‘You’ll know where they are when you’ve been here a few days, when they start throwing the shells about…!’

Alexander Stanier, an officer in the Welsh Guards, found there were some difficulties caused by the influx of new troops not used to trench life.

They were in very good form they didn’t seem to realise that the Germans were close; they made the most appalling noise which of course frightened the Germans who thought they were going to be attacked, I think. They also had a bet on as to who’d shoot the first German in this battalion. The Germans sent over a patrol to find out what was happening and of course they all let fly and they did shoot the equivalent of a German company sergeant major, who was brought in, dead. And of course then there was the most appalling argument as to who’d shot him, because about a million rounds had been fired. But they were very keen and, as I say, there were too many of them in a small space. They caused the most frightful commotion and the Germans kept on thinking they were being attacked. I had a very uncomfortable time because we had much more shelling while they were there. We kept it all quiet.

Many of the Americans were shocked when confronted with the realities of trench warfare. Leonard Stagg served with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The Americans when they came over it absolutely jolted them. I remember one of their MO’s saying to me, ‘Do you mean to tell me you chaps have stuck this for three years and more?’ Yes I said. He said, ‘Our chaps will never stick it.’ I remember one of those coming into the room, one was crying – his brother in law had been killed, down near Metz. They’d never experienced war like it; it just really shook them to their very marrows.

The American soldiers were unused to the dangers of front-line service, as British private William Gillman found out.

We liked the Americans. We used to take the mickey out of their boasting; you know, they’d only got to arrive and the war would be won. But of course it wasn’t, and it took some time. Because we knew very well that when they said that they were going to knock out these goddam Jerries and all the kind of thing like that then they got the reverse lesson. They learned, even after repeated warnings from us. Cos they never used to take much notice of us warning them, you know. They were so cocksure that they didn’t know what keeping your head down meant. And they paid a penalty to it, too. They thought they were going to knock old Jerry out just by looking over the top, see. But of course Jerry wasn’t like that and he taught them a lesson. And then as soon as they got used to it and began to realise that even their tin helmets wouldn’t stop bullets! They got more wise to things.

Sometimes, this inexperience had serious consequences – as Horace Calvert of the Grenadier Guards discovered.

We took them into the trenches with us and there were two or three with me and the section I was in. There was a sergeant who was further down and some more. They’d been told not to go out from our trenches unless they told the company on the right and the company on the left, in other words the flank men. And they’d pass it on if there was anybody, not to shoot at any patrol or anybody coming in, crawling in or walking in during the darkness but to challenge and make sure they did that before they did any shooting. Well this American sergeant took two or three men out looking for souvenirs – we told him there weren’t any, there were nothing worth having but he would go out to see if he could get any. And unluckily they got in front of the machine guns of the Irish Guards and they shot them. The sergeant I think did lose his leg and the others were wounded. That, you see, was them not listening.

After they had received their training, the American troops were eager to get into action. Earl Davison served with the US Artillery.

There was a general opinion among the men that – let’s get on with it, that if there’s nothing more that you can teach us here, so many miles back from where there’s something doing, we don’t want to stay here forever, we want to get this thing over with, that was general among the men. And we practically broke open a bottle of champagne when the words came that we were to move the next 48 hours, somewhere, we didn’t care where. We’d had enough of this business of play-acting. We wanted to get somewhere where we could do some damage, and get done, get back home.

The first American offensive of the First World War took place in France at Cantigny on 28 May 1918. John Figarovsky witnessed the battle.

And on the day of the battle, they had the tremendous barrage. They had a creeping barrage. I was watching through binoculars and they had a creeping barrage that was slowly creeping towards the town of Cantigny which was situated on high ground. And I could see some of the waves of American soldiers as they went forward. I saw many of them fall. I saw some of them get up and follow the barrage again. And every here and there, there was a Whippet tank with the troops, they did a lot of work when they got to the town those tanks, wiping out some of the machine-gun nests there. And there was so much smoke and so much noise going on from all the barrage and counter barrage, you know, that I couldn’t see very well exactly what was going on.

At the end of May, American troops arrived at Chateau Thierry, south of Soissons, to support the French against German attack. Gunner William Maher remembered what happened.

When we arrived in the Chateau Thierry section our battalion, our guns, went immediately into action in support of the Marines and the infantry who were in the Belleau Woods and Belleau and Bouresches; and we were firing continuously day and night, high explosive, gas, shrapnel. And we realised the importance of saving Paris and the Allied army itself was at stake. And there was a lot heavy work going on there hauling ammunition day and night. We had to keep off the roads in the daytime because we were under the constant observation of the enemy; and during the day we had to hide in the woods and clean our horses and all our equipment and get ready for the next night’s work. Our division suffered very heavy casualties, about 9,800 officers and men; but we felt we had turned the tide and we did a good job.

On 6 June, US Marines went into action against German forces at Belleau Wood. Melvin Krulewitch described the fierce fighting that took place there.

We got into the edge of the woods and we dug in. And we took position there, ready for either an advance again on orders from the top command or for a defence against a counter attack. Now this was the kind of fighting that many Americans knew of; no longer trench system, no trench warfare, but open warfare. The way their ancestors had fought on the frontiers and in all the wars of our country. And we knew it. But the difficulty with Belleau Wood was you never knew where the front was. Little groups of Americans, little groups of Germans got together to fight each other. And while you were fighting in one direction all of a sudden, without any warning, you’d find there were some Germans to the rear of you and they had to be mopped up. Clean up, mop up, and move ahead; move ahead with the unyielding determination to enforce your will on the enemy; and that was how we moved in Belleau Wood.

These American actions contributed to the Allied successes in the summer of 1918. British officer Murray Rymer-Jones was one of many who appreciated the USA’s support in the war.

Those were happy days and things had begun to look up. And so things were getting better and the Americans were down the south. We’d had one of their battalions in Arras in the trench and they were rather delighted that they had an officer killed on their first night. So they felt they were doing their job. I liked them very much, because they were full of enthusiasm, full of guts. They were after all, they’d come over to win the war and they were very good.

Donald Price of the Royal Fusiliers also had a positive opinion of the Americans he encountered.

We were taken down from Ypres right the way down to near Peronne. First time I met the Americans. It was down there somewhere, round Peronne or somewhere, where the Americans had just come in. I loved them; they were all so generous. We didn’t see many of them but we passed a lot once, they were on the side of the road there, chin-wagging and you know, they were pleased to see us, you know, mates. And they were very kind, they gave us cigarettes and chocolates and things like that.

Troops of the railway regiments, the US Army Corps of Engineers, in a tent at the light railway depot at Boisleux-au-Mont, 2 September 1917.
Troops of the railway regiments, the US Army Corps of Engineers, in a tent at the light railway depot at Boisleux-au-Mont, 2 September 1917. © IWM (Q 6081)

But not everyone was so enthusiastic about them. One of the chief sources of tension was that the Americans earned more money than the British, as Herbert Verrity of the West Yorkshire Regiment explained.

The Americans were very unpopular because they had the money; they didn’t half get big money. So, if you was in small villages and all that there, the shopkeepers didn’t want to know you. Cos their prices was made to suit the Americans with their big money, what they could throw away. So of course that created a lot of bitterness really between the English soldier and the American soldier.

In some cases, animosity between the different nationalities serving alongside each other spilled over into physical violence. Royal Engineer Wilfred Whitlam recalled one such instance.

We was guarding a bridge just behind the lines and a mate of mine and myself went into a café – there was nobody else in the village, like, at all. And we were sat in this café and two Americans came in and of course they were bragging about how they’d come to win the war and all sorts. My mate says, ‘Shall I go and give him one?’ He’d been a boxer. I said, ‘Aye. I’ll look after the other one if he interferes.’ He just gave him one punch and he went flying over the top of the tables! The other chap was going to his help but I got hold of the scruff of his neck and said, ‘You mustn’t interfere or else you’ll get the same.’ And with that they went!

Despite these tensions, the overall contribution of America to the First World War was a key factor in the Allies’ ability to turn the tide against Germany in 1918. German officer Hartwig Pohlmann remembered how the numbers of men on the Western Front gradually tipped the scale in the Allies’ favour.

In July 1918 we tried to cross the River Marne but after three days we had to fall back. The resistance of the enemy was too heavy and there we met first American troops and now we knew from month to month more and more American troops will come to the front line and the enemy will become overwhelming for us. But we knew that we had to do our duty as soldiers and it was a matter of the politicians to find a way to a fair peace and so we did our duty as long as we could and most of the German soldiers did so. We had very heavy losses in that year and the units became smaller and smaller, we had to combine to form one company out of two and so on. The number of our guns diminished.

Many years after his service with the US Army on the Western Front, Harvey Maness reflected on his experiences as one of over two million Americans who took part in the war.

All wars are hell. All wars are useless. All wars are futile. Nevertheless when I went in, I was just… this was the only war that was ever going to be fought to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy. I believed that – the only war that’s ever been fought to make the world safe for democracy and to end all wars. Just think if we had ended that. To tell you the truth, I’m very fortunate to come through World War One and be in shape I am. I’m so happy and proud to be in this stage in life; came through all of that and still in good health. I’m so grateful and thankful.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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